Health Warning

•November 16, 2009 • 3 Comments

Every PhD should come with a health warning! I suspect I may have suggested this in the past, but I say it again!  They should! I was recently talking with my office-mate about my blog and how depressing it’s become, because of the thesis – he agreed, that if he had a blog, it would be darker than Satan’s boots right now!  This set me thinking – when I think back to the troubles that me, my office-mate, and the various others whom I know who are currently in the midst of thesis-dom – I am astonished we’re all still alive!  I can recall the various ailments, issues and experiences of those around me, and they include insomnia, panic attacks, terrible migraines, ordinary recurring headaches, skin conditions, depression (of varying degrees), palpitations, appetite issues, nightmares, exhaustion and…and..and…the list goes on.  And this does not cover the obvious risks of the job, such as repetitive strain injury and back and neck problems caused by years spent hunching over books and computer keyboards.   One graduate student who was close to completion was so distressed and so deeply mired in depression that he failed to submit and fled the country!!!  My supervisor said to me before I started that it was perhaps the most psychologically demanding thing you could take on and certainly, never in any other job that I’ve done, or experience that I’ve trained for, has my entire life and self-worth relied so heavily on the comments and responses of one or two people to one document, one piece of my work!!

Ah well – finally I feel I’m getting there.  Chapter five is almost finished (well, in draft form) and after that I’ll go back to revising the writing of all the chapters (again), and then attempting an introduction and a conclusion, and finally the biggest essay I’ve ever written will be done!  Then, well – after it’s been examined and finished off – I can regain my life, my social life, my family life, and, most of all, my sanity.  Thank god!

“if you don’t love it, if you’re not having fun doing it, then quit”

•October 19, 2009 • 1 Comment

So says Steve Jobs, arguably the most influential CEO on the planet at the moment and certainly, to my own eyes, the most inspirational.  This man delivers his keynotes with the sort of style and energy that instantly rubs off on his audience, and that conveys with ease his complete passion for his subject.  And he’s right – what is the point of dragging yourself through something, day in, day out, if you’re not passionate about it.  I have a couple of different jobs and, in one of them at the moment, there is quite a swell of grumpiness and resentment that it makes me want to avoid particular people altogether – and that’s sad.  I want to work with people, not be forced to give them a miss because of their wonky attitude.

However, it reminds me (and I think I’ve posted on this theme before), that I am incredibly lucky to do what I do.  Of course, I’ve struggled, and I’ve struggled a LOT – particularly with finances and, in turn, workload.  But, looking back, I know that if I’d got a scholarship from the word go rather than just start the PhD part time with my own money, there is not a chance in hell I’d have done the things I’ve done.  My experiences have been rich and the opportunities great.  I have been to some great cities and countries and met really interesting people with whom I’m still in touch.  I’ve also developed deep friendships and experienced the care and generosity of people who are now extremely important to me.  It still never ceases to amaze me how freely my colleagues will give up their time to offer support and inspiration to my project.

Despite all the hard, dark times, and the current struggles of the final stages of writing up, I do this because I *love* it.  For example, on Friday I missed my deadline again.  I was so disappointed in myself, full of self loathing for not achieving my work as planned – again.  However, I carried on working (with the deadline rescheduled for a few days later) and spent the day discovering and reading a really fascinating text called Microcosmographia, first published in 1615 by Helkiah Crooke, a physician and anatomist.  It’s a study of the human body – the first of its kind to be produced by someone who was not a surgeon (and for that reason attempts were made to suppress it) – and it’s utterly engrossing!  I read the chapters relating to the physiology of the eye and my favourite discovery was his description of ‘teares’ as the ‘excrement of the braine’, which I thought was an incredible metaphor!  And on Saturday afternoon, as I lay on my bed with the curtains shut against the painful sun, and waiting for my head to burst with the sinusitis that is actually giving me toothache (!), I thought – bloody hell, I’m lucky!  I get to spend all my time reading and writing about the most bizarre and compelling topics, and completely indulge my passion for Renaissance literature, history, culture and art.  Lucky me!

And so I say it again, in the words of Steve Jobs, “if you don’t love it, if you’re not having fun doing it, then quit”.


•October 7, 2009 • 1 Comment

I remember watching colleagues who’d started their PhDs before me, going into their final year and progressing through their writing up.  I remember noticing that formerly perfectly sane, entirely calm and collected individuals, seemed to be going a bit potty.  This both astonished me and worried me – if these very clever, studious, well organised and entirely capable individuals were starting to lose it under the pressure of writing up, what on earth would it do to me??  Well, now I understand and empathise entirely!  I feel like I’m going slightly mad, as the eloquent Freddie Mercury put it.  It’s finally happened.  Here I am, half way through my writing up.  One supervisor left me to take up a job abroad, a couple of months after I started writing up and then, just the other week his replacement has announced he is departing for foreign climes come January.  I should be *almost* done by January, but I don’t think I’ll be finished, unfortunately.  I don’t really want to be finishing by correspondence but I’ll have no option and I suppose, at least, I will be almost done – I hope.

My responses to the continued pressure is odd.  I remember this year in March various colleagues and friends talking about their final projects and dissertations and the two weeks or so of stress this caused.  I feel like the writing up period is an entire year of this kind of pressure – and that starts to wear a little thin!  My work-guilt has reached and all-time high.  I don’t feel I can do anything else that is not work.  And, when I do, the guilt gnaws another chunk out of my brain, from my very soul!  I am slowly being eaten, consumed and digested by this ‘final project’.  I have slowly become rattier and rattier – my patience is thin, my ability to relax is nil, my capacity for giving myself entirely to others is utterly diminished.  I never feel like I’m having a proper conversation any more because my mind is always elsewhere.  I’m permanently distracted, always thinking of what I need to add to this chapter, or a lead I should really follow up and check.  I must appear extremely rude to other people – they must think I’m not listening to them, my vacant, far-away gaze a tell-tale sign of my lack of interest in their conversation.  But I can’t help it – I just always have something else on my mind – the same thing, that constantly requires my time, all of it.

I remember when studying for my finals, my parents were redecorating the hallway and kept insisting that I participate in this joyous family activity, that it was essential for me to hang wallpaper and paint ceilings.  I was in a constant fury with them at their apparent complete lack of ability to understand the amount of work I had to do.  Nobody in my family had attended university before – what would they know about finals?  My Dad was constantly cracking jokes which seemed to me to be undermining and belittling the very thing I was striving to achieve and which was so very important to me.  I should think that in fact they were trying to distract me, help me relax and take my mind off the finality of the exams which would decide my path in the future.  However, in my moments of pressure I was entirely devoid of humour, grumpy and fed up with being told how and when to study, when I should take breaks, when and how I should relax and this resulted in a number of terse conversations.  I was so glad when it was all over and I cannot wait for that feeling again.  All that is propelling me forward at the moment is the prospect of a trip to Australia next year and the moment when I wake up and don’t have to think about The Thesis.

I have been trying to find ways to push The Thesis out of my head.  I tried reading but recently, I don’t seem to be able to concentrate on it – probably because The Thesis is stuck on my brain and won’t let me read.  I can’t read mindlessly – when I read, I am always reading for meaning, for connections, intertextuality – I can’t do that with The Thesis on my mind, it seems.  This strikes me as strange since, in moments of great crisis, I normally have a voracious appetite for reading.  I remember becoming completely addicted to reading after the death of my best friend.  I spent all day and all night reading, novel after novel. I would do nothing else.  I went on holiday for a week with my parents to a small island where there is nothing to do.  I had a book but at the speed I was reading, it didn’t last long.  I hadn’t brought anything else to read and literally broke down when I realised it.  I finished the book while lying in bed one night, realised I hadn’t another to start, and burst into tears.  Suddenly, all the thoughts and memories I’d be reading to exclude came crashing back in and I couldn’t stop them.  I was inconsolable and ran to the newsagent in a desperate attempt to find something – they had nothing.  In the end my Dad came up with the goods and gave me something about Russians and tractors to read – did the job.  I did the same while The Boy’s Dad was dying of cancer – I read and read and read.  And got faster and faster – I read On Chesil Beach (an excellent book I’d recommend) in one day, whilst sitting by his bedside as his breath, shallow and sporadic, indicated his impending passing.  But suddenly I can’t read!!  In the moment when I most need to get away from this one thing, I can’t do it with books!  Instead, I’m addicted to American TV series.  So far a (very supportive and important) friend has supplied me with Damages, Veronica Mars, Boston Legal, Studio 60, Dexter, Arrested Development, and True Blood.  Normally I watch very, very little television – it rarely interests me.  However, suddenly, I’m addicted to these series!  I *have* to have more and I panic when I run out!  Of the series I’d watch – Damages is excellent.  It’s a terse, tightly plotted, intense legal drama with twists and turns that keep you on the edge of your seat, and excellent performances by the likes of Tate Donovan, Ted Danson and Glenn Close – if you haven’t seen it already, get it; you will not regret it for an instant.  Boston Legal is brilliant – its 5 seasons are hilarious, emotional, touching and offer very well written drama – I was very sad when I reached the end of it.  The Shat (William Shatner) and James Spader make an incredible partnership.  It took me a little longer to get into True Blood as I’m not much of a sci-fi fan, and haven’t really bothered with vampire shows before.  This show is, almost literally, vampires and sex.  That’s about the size of it – it’s very raunchy, slick and cool, but it’s also compelling.  It also took me a while to get into Dexter as I struggled to engage with the characters but, as with many TV series, after you’ve watched 3 or 4 episodes, you’re hooked.  Dexter season 2 was sensational!  I think what’s got me hooked with these is that they involve absolutely no effort from me (aside from keeping my eyes open, which has recently become something of a task).  All I have to do is follow the plot.  Also, they all last only an hour – so that’s all I have to concentrate for.  Finally, they’re all completely removed from the real world and have nothing to do with books – that, I think, is the key.

So, if I appear distracted, zone out while you’re talking to me, seem to be entirely consumed and obsessed by this silly essay I’ve been writing for the past 4 years, please forgive me – normal service will resume in approximately four months.  I promise.

Dear Amazon – you’re idiots!

•September 16, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I’d like to register a brief whinge about!  In June I ordered a birthday present for a friend – it was 2 weeks late with nothing more than a stock ‘we’re sorry’ email.  In July I ordered Damages (season 1) on DVD (if you’ve not seen that, it’s a must-watch) – I’m still waiting for that DVD, 3 email complaints on.  In September I ordered and xbox game for The Boy’s birthday – it was over a week late despite my paying extra postage for faster delivery. I sent them a hum-dinger of a complaint yesterday, practically begging for my DVD to be delivered. What do I receive? An email saying my address is not confirmed (I altered it to make it more precise in case it was causing issues with their deliveries!) and so they’re giving me a refund.  I don’t want a refund!!!! I want Damages Season 1 on DVD NOW!!! I have just sent an email to that effect – let’s see what happens now.  I’m not giving up on this – I ordered it because it was  fantastic price at the time – it’s now still in stock but at double the price and I’m NOT paying that! I want the DVD I ordered at the price I paid two months ago – is that too much to ask?!

Best before, use by.

•September 16, 2009 • Leave a Comment

So here we are, just over a year on from the shock of losing both of The Boy’s parents.  Two people who were extremely dear and important to me, for whom I had much respect and love, are gone, very suddenly; one without warning, one with little warning.  It is, of course, still as shocking to us that they’re both gone – it’s an odd thing, how did it happen?  (and I don’t mean that literally, we saw that, in all too much detail)

They tell you that grief happens in stages – Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has it all mapped out, 5 tidy stages to go through and then you’re back to normal.  Wouldn’t it be nice if it actually was like that?  Instead it’s like an elaborate game of hide and seek and I for one am not having fun with it, I don’t want to play any more.

It’s heavy, it weighs you down, every day.  In the immediate aftermath you have the obvious and easily comprehensible symptoms to deal with but later, when you’re a year or so down the line, these open wounds have started to scab over.  But they’re still sore, and bumping them hurts.  I’m just waiting for the nice neat white scar.

Wouldn’t it be great if it had a date on it, like the Kubler-Ross 5-stage theory hints at?  Like a pack of vegetables, a nice ‘best before’ and a ‘use by’ date….

Top tips on eating out of date eggs.

•September 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Tip number 1:  don’t eat them.

This, my friends, is wise advice from the learned.  And I learned the hard way.  On Friday I went to the fridge in search of luncheon, having only just returned to the flat after a couple of weeks away.  There was, inevitably, nothing in there.  I’m not quite sure what sent me there, searching as if perhaps the grocery-shopping faerie had been and filled it up for me!  Alas, she had not.  So it was down to me to make do with what I had.  Unfortunately, my flatmate is not a man of quality food.  All he had was the odd ready-made steak pie and a pack of Asda basics bacon which was more fat and water than actual meat.  He did have a box of eggs but, for some inexplicable reason, I over-looked those and went for my own out of date eggs instead, left over from when I was last in the flat.  Yes, they were several days out of date.  Let’s say nearing a week.  But I figured I’d be able to smell it if they were actually off and so snaffled some of Flatmate’s bread and made do (I should really have gone with beans on toast but hey ho, that’s the benefit of hindsight for you!).

So I whipped up a quick french toast and munched away happily.  Well, sort of – the first slice got burnt and then the plate split clean in half when I started to eat but, aside from that, all was good.  I had a meeting at 4pm, before which I felt a bit nauseous, but I put that down to pre-PhD meeting nerves, knowing I hadn’t done enough work.  After the meeting I went with New Supervisor to his house where me and The Boy settled down to a nice evening meal and a good ol’ chin-wag.  All was good, the food was lovely and we were enjoying things until, shortly after dinner I began to feel unwell.  I nipped off to the bathroom and, much to my surprise, I was sick.  I was fairly taken aback by this, but thought it wasn’t much so I could deal with it as a one-off.  However, not long after, I had to make another trip and was much more sick that time, so we called a taxi and called it a night….at just before 10pm!!  In the taxi home I was shivering uncontrollably as if I was sitting in sub-zero temperatures, it was really weird.  Once home, I was well and truly, thoroughly ill.  Actually, it got beyond belief – I was still throwing up at 9:30am the following morning and the stomach cramps were *agony*.  It was incredible – I’ve not been that sick in ages – I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever eat than much for me to continue being so sick!

The Boy was as sweet as sweet could be – he put me to bed that night (not that I was ever there long!) and he went and slept on the sofa so as to ensure I was as comfy as I could be (I protested at this but he was having none of it).  The next day he had me tucked up on his sofa, before fetching me glasses of diluting juice and Sprite, once I could keep it down.  I stayed there looking pasty and pathetic for most of the day, drifting in and out of sleep before eventually (painfully) hauling my sorry carcass home to my own bed. It is now Monday and I’ve finally been able to eat (and keep down) some food!  I’m also half a stone lighter than I was two days ago – fairly incroyable!

So let that be a lesson to you – those best before dates really do mean something!

Dark Depths

•September 9, 2009 • 5 Comments

And once more, with the blogging.  Here I am again.  No posts for ages, and now a surfeit.  I just have to make note of just now because I am slipping into a horrible, hopeless, hole with my thesis.  I am fast approaching failure on meeting a deadline.  The deadline is Friday and it is for the entirety of chapter three, with a detailed outline for chapter four.  I have been given a week to do this.  I just cannot manage this.  The looming prospect of failure is killing me.  I am very miserable about it.  I can’t keep up and I so wanted to be able to prove myself to my new supervisor.  Now all I can prove is that I can’t achieve what he’s asking of me.  I’ve had anxiety dreams about the thesis this week – I had a dream that my supervisor arranged for my viva to be done as a favour, made more easy for me, in order for me to pass.  I passed it and then afterwards felt no urge to celebrate because I was gripped by a terrible fear and recognition that I hadn’t finished my thesis and so would never be a Dr.  I really don’t want to turn up on Friday with a half- assembled, half-written, mostly crap chapter but I know that this is all I will be able to manage in the time given.  If I had three weeks, then maybe I’d be able to manage something better.  But I don’t.  I have a week and therefore I will fail.

I’m also beginning to wonder if there’s any point in this whole enterprise.  I mean, what will I do with it when I’m done?  I sat on an interview panel/audience on Friday.  The department is hiring a temporary lecturer for a year.  What I found most distressing was the list of publications on the CVs of these mostly young candidates.  Each of them had around 6 publications already, some with monographs, or with forthcoming monographs. The comment that grated most was from our new head of department who expressed concern that one of the candidates (actually the most rounded, best-looking candidate there) had only just recently got his doctorate, two years ago.  In that time said candidate had published a ream of articles, had been employed at Cambridge, had become a co-founder of a well-thought of journal, had taught, had been involved in an impressive translation/transcribing project and had worked to get these materials online.  That candidate’s experience was apparently of concern???  Honestly, what’s the point?  Why am I slaving out my guts, pouring blood, sweat and tears and an awful lot of money into something that will get me nowhere.  I am expected to scrape around on bits of temporary work, here and there, on part time wages with no pension or rights, for at least 3 years??  Since 2004 I have lived on very, very little money, often not having enough spare cash to buy food or fill my prescriptions because I wanted to fulfil my ambition.  Now I’m wondering what sort of ambition it was?  It’s rapidly be crushed under the weight of enormous odds which are stacked against me.

I spend most of my days on my own, with my thesis, working, reading, writing.  If I pass the secretary in the corridor, that’s my point of human contact for the day.  That and the woman in the sandwich shop down the hill.  Actually, I lie – that and Twitter and Facebook – and even on those, I’m giving up.  It’s hardly interaction – people are so caught up in their own lives and worlds (rightly so) that they don’t even have time to respond to you, to your thoughts, ideas, comments and photos.  My world is a lonely, often empty one – by necessity – and I’m doing this to myself, at my own personal expense, in order to get a job that I won’t be able to get.  Well done – smart life-plan.  If I’d followed the natural progression of the career I began between my Masters and my PhD, I’d no doubt have climbed the greasy pole, got a flat or a house in a nice area, perhaps a kitten.  I’d certainly have a pension and enough money to keep myself fed and clothed, and to socialise.  I’d also have time – I’d have time to go out, to pursue my hobbies and interests and to see my friends.  The PhD has robbed me of those – no, I’ve robbed myself.

No-one tells you how unalterably depressing undertaking a PhD is.  No-one.  Fortunately, I know I’m not the only one out there – others I know have talked about dark, deep misery, lack of self-worth and motivation.  These should be in the prospectus under the course description.  Don’t even let anyone tell you a PhD will be like any other university course you’ve done.  It’s not.